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What is the Fourth Wall?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 23, 2024

The fourth wall is a convention in the fiction medium which separates the action from the audience. This term has its roots in the 1800s, and it refers to the effect created in a proscenium theater, in which members of the audience sit on the other side of a "wall" created by the proscenium arch, looking into the set. Works of written fiction usually include a fourth wall, as do plays, movies, and television shows in which the fiction is dramatized.

By convention, the fourth wall is not mentioned or disturbed in the course of the events depicted. The maintenance of the wall helps the audience to suspend its disbelief, as fantastical events can happen beyond the wall but be perceived as acceptable, since they appear in the isolated universe of the fiction itself. In the case of dramatized fiction, the actors usually play to the fourth wall, and the set is oriented towards this imaginary barrier to ensure that the audience can clearly see what is happening.

In some works, people transcend the boundaries of the fourth wall. This practice is known as "breaking the wall," and it can be jarring or unsettling to an audience. A classic example of this is an aside or narration which is directed at the audience, as for example when a character in a Shakespeare play steps to the side of the stage and embarks upon a soliloquy; the other characters do not hear or respond to the speech, because the speech is directed through the fourth wall.

Breaking the wall can be an excellent narrative device, with many artists using the technique to jar, startle, or amuse the audience. A number of television programs have used a documentary-style device, allowing characters to speak directly to the camera as if being interviewed. When done poorly, however, going through the fourth wall can ruin the look and feel of the piece, making the audience feel alienated or confused. In a movie, for example, if a character abruptly begins to address the camera, it might feel unbalanced and strange.

People can also break through the fourth wall within the context of a narrative. In The Matrix, for example, the hero realizes that he is living in a fictional world, and he pulls himself out of that world and into the "real" world of the narrative. Many works of fiction have used this device, unpeeling layers of reality like an onion. In some cases, the audience may be in on the deception, and in other instances, the revelation of an entirely different reality may come as a surprise.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon311950 — On Jan 04, 2013

The only example I remember when the fourth wall is broken is: Peter Pan addressing the audience/readers (depending if your reading the book or watching a play or movie) to clap for Tinker Bell.

A less classical example would probably be in my favorite anime, Ouran High School Host Club, where the characters address the viewers several times and it fits too.

There are probably others, but I can't think of any others at the moment. Would the "ask an anime character" panels at anime cons count? It is kind of the characters interacting with the fans through the voice actors in a way, if you think about it.

By anon248026 — On Feb 15, 2012

Norman Fell from "Three's Company" broke the fourth wall all the time when he joked and looked at the camera and made a face.

By anon160641 — On Mar 16, 2011

"Annie Hall" is another great example of breaking the fourth wall.

By anon158788 — On Mar 08, 2011

Ferris Buehler's Day Off is a classic example whenever Ferris (Matthew Broderick) address the audience directly.

By anon156744 — On Feb 28, 2011

can anybody name some movies with this concept, please?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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